Novak Djokovic has long divided opinion in the tennis world, provoking fervent support but also a degree of animosity.
Those emotions have been magnified by the decision to grant the world No.1 a medical exemption to compete in the Australian Open.
Figures within tennis, however, have initially either been quiet, or coy at the news, though this is partly explained by it breaking late in the Australian evening when many of the players preparing in Australia for the grand slam were either heading for bed or away from media outlets.
The medical exemption to Novak Djokovic to defend his Australian Open title has divided opinion
The exemption comes after a months-long battle with the Victorian government, officials and event organisers (pictured, Djokovic attends a sports game on December 14)
The 20-time grand slam winner and nine-time Australian Open champion revealed he was heading to Melbourne on Tuesday night in a brief Instagram post.
‘I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022 !!’ he wrote.
It comes after a months-long battle with the Victorian government, officials and event organisers that ended with the tennis star being granted an exemption.
Queensland senator Matt Canavan said letting Djokovic play in the first grand slam of the year posed ‘little risk’ because the tennis star had contracted Covid-19 before.
‘Natural immunity by multiple studies is much, much stronger than the immunity you get from having a vaccination,’ Mr Canavan said on the Today show on Wednesday.
‘So there’s little risk here in letting Novak Djokovic in.’
The senator said on a ‘practical ground’ the player was unlikely to cripple Victoria’s health system after the state recorded 14,000 cases and 516 people in hospital.
I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022 !!’ Djokovic wrote on Tuesday night
The 20-time grand slam winner and nine-time Australian Open champion revealed he was heading to Melbourne on Tuesday night in a brief Instagram post (pictured)
‘Yes, some of us would love to see rules apply literally and constantly. But I think some of these rules are temporary,’ Mr Canavan said.
‘We’ve got to get back to a sensible world here and move on with life and thankfully, with the seemingly less lethal Omicron variant, I think we’re very close to that, and here perhaps is just another small step to ending the pandemic and returning, as I say, to the land of commonsense.’
The move makes a change in tact from both the Victorian government and Tennis Australia, with both vowing as recently as November that unvaccinated players would not be welcome.
Djokovic contracted the virus while hosting a party in the middle of the pandemic and has never explicitly revealed if he is or isn’t jabbed.
Currently vaccination exemptions are only handed out in Australia to people who have had anaphylaxis after a previous vaccine or an ingredient in the provided jabs.
People who are immunocompromised can also receive an exemption in some circumstances.
Queensland senator Matt Canavan (pictured) said letting Djokovic play in the first grand slam of the year posed ‘little risk’ because the tennis star had contracted Covid-19 before
Djokovic (pictured with his wife Jelena) is understood to be one of several players given medical exemptions to play at the Australian Open
Australian Open organisers say the medical exemption was granted through a ‘rigorous review process’ that went via the country’s Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) guidelines and was approved by Victoria’s health department.
The move is likely to outrage many Australians, who have been told they cannot re-enter their own country unless they’re fully vaccinated or face two weeks in strict hotel quarantine, with many already expressing their fury online.
Jamie Murray, the British doubles player, was neither having just competed in the ATP Cup. When asked his thoughts he said: ‘I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t be getting an exemption.’ After a pause he added: ‘But well done to him for getting clear to come to Australia and compete.’
The reaction of the players alongside Murray at the press conference suggested this was a minefield few were prepared to cross. Certainly the Australian players James Duckworth and Alex de Minaur were more circumspect, if not exactly overjoyed at the news.
‘I don’t know the criteria for exemptions ,apparently it’s an independent panel, he must have fit the criteria somehow, so, yeah, if he’s fit the criteria, then, yeah, he should be able to come,’ said Duckworth.
De Minaur responded with a laugh: ‘That’s very politically correct of you.’
Djokovic (pictured heading to Melbourne) contracted the virus while hosting a party in the middle of the pandemic and has never explicitly revealed if he is or isn’t jabbed
Australian players Alex de Minaur (pictured) and James Duckworth had mixed responses to the news of the world no.1’s exemption to play in the grand slam
The Australian No.1 added: ‘I just think it’s just very interesting, that’s all I’m going to say. But, hey, it is what it is, I just hope that the other players that I heard there were other cases as well, they got exemptions, so I hope they will all fit the criteria.’
Richard Ings, the former head of Australia’s anti-doping authority ASADA, and a keen advocate of vaccination, was less reticent.
‘Clearly all this talk about vaccination status being personal and private only held water up to the point of tossing it back in the face of vaccinated Australians,’ he wrote on twitter.
Seven hours after announcing his travel plans the Serbian had received 32,400 likes, 6,500 retweets and 5,900 replies.
Given he has 8.8m followers those numbers are not particularly large. More pertinent was the content. There was a significant hard-core of support, much of it from compatriots or anti-vaxxers.
But there was far more criticism, often very strongly worded, a lot of it from Australians, many of whom also took aim at their own Government.
The Serbian tennis star (pictured) has repeatedly refused to confirm if he is vaccinated or not
Several took to Twitter to announce they would boycott the tournament if Djokovic was allowed to play while others said they would refuse to watch the TV coverage.
Since the Serbian tennis star has been granted an exemption, he won’t have to enter two weeks of hotel quarantine – like un-vaccinated arrivals must.
Instead, Djokovic will have to follow the same rules as fully-vaccinated travellers – taking a PCR test on arrival and isolating until the result comes through.
It comes despite strong words from the Australian Open Director Craig Tilley and the Victorian Premier who vowed unvaccinated attendees would not be welcome.
‘It’s been made very clear when the Premier announced that in order to participate at the Australian Open, to come into Victoria, you’ll need to be fully vaccinated,’ TA CEO and Australian Open Tournament Director Craig Tiley said last year.
‘It is the one direction that you take, that you can ensure everyone’s safety. All the playing group understands it. Our patrons will need to be vaccinated, all the staff working the Australian Open need to be vaccinated.
‘When we’re in a state where there’s more than 90 percent of the population fully vaccinated, it’s the right thing to do.’
Victorian Premier Dan Andrews (pictured) said last year he would not ‘facilitate’ unvaccinated tennis stars entering the country.
Since the tennis star (pictured with his wife Jelena in 2019) has been granted an exemption he won’t have to enter two weeks of hotel quarantine – like unvaccinated arrivals must
Likewise, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews said last year he would not ‘facilitate’ unvaccinated tennis stars entering the country.
‘I’m not very well going to say to people that they can’t go to the pub tonight unless they’re double vaxxed, but certain high-profile people who choose not to be vaccinated… I’m not going to be facilitating them coming here,’ he said defiantly.
In a statement to Daily Mail Australia, Tennis Australia said certified proof of vaccination or valid medical exemptions would be the only way into the country or a person would have to serve 14 days in hotel quarantine.
They denied the suggestion it was seeking ‘loopholes’ to help Djokovic enter the country.
‘Any application for a medical exemption must follow strict government guidelines based on ATAGI (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) clinical advice,’ a Tennis Australia spokeswoman told Daily Mail Australia.
‘This is the same process that applies to any person wanting to enter Australia.
‘Adjudicating on medical exemptions is the domain of independent medical experts. We are not in a position to influence this process and nor would we.’
Tennis Australia CEO said it was up to the players to reveal their vaccination status (pictured, Djokovic on an Adelaide hotel balcony in 2021 after flying in for tournaments)
Of those competing in the AO tournament 95 out of the top 100 men’s players have been vaccinated (pictured, Djokovic with his wife Jelena)
In December, TA unveiled its Covid-19 vaccination protocols for this year’s tournament, including the process for stars seeking medical exemptions.
CEO Mr Tiley spoke to Today about the granting of a small number of exemptions to unvaccinated players competing at Melbourne Park, saying they had been reviewed anonymously by medical professionals.
‘Coming into Australia, every athlete coming in has to be vaccinated and show proof of that, or has to have made application from a medical exemption. In the case of tennis players, that’s far more rigorous than anyone coming into Australia applying for a medical exemption,’ the TA CEO said.
‘There are two medical panels that assess any application, and they assess it in a blind way. They don’t know who the applicant is.
‘Against the guidelines, an exemption gets granted or not. The reason for granting the exemption remains private, between the panel and the applicant.’
Mr Tiley said he was aware of athletes that have applied for an exemption and been granted one, adding it was up to players to reveal their vaccination status.
The Australian Open tournament begins on January 17 and the ATP has revealed that 95 out of the top 100 men’s players have been vaccinated.
More to come.
WHY IS DJOKOVIC EXEMPT?
Australia’s Department of Health says medical exemptions are handed out if the individual has an ‘acute major medical condition’.
Under the guidelines, these conditions could include:
– Inflammatory cardiac illness in the last three months
– Undergoing major surgery or hospital admission for a serious illness
– A Covid-19 diagnosis that means vaccination cannot be made for six months
– Any serious effect to a Covid-19 vaccine in the past (Note: Djokovic has not confirmed whether or not he has been jabbed)
– If the vaccine is a risk to themselves or others during the vaccination process
– Underlying developmental or mental health disorders
Victoria’s Deputy Premier James Merlino said last month that medical exemptions are ‘not a loophole’.
‘Medical exemptions are just that,’ he said. ‘It’s not a loophole for privileged tennis players.
‘They are medical exemptions in exceptional circumstances – if you have acute medical conditions.’